Gaping at strange people
In the 19th century, the European public had, for the first time, the opportunity to gape at Indians, Eskimos, aboriginals and other exotic people. The interest was immense. Especially ‘natives’, who had been shipped out to Europe from far away places for live shows at world exhibitions, exhibitions, zoos or circuses, drew millions of spectators. The public was astonished at the sight of creatures who looked and behaved so differently from anybody they knew. In this context, it must be said that the differences were greatly exaggerated for the benefit of the show.
West European civilization was the standard
Scientists too were interested in these shows, which enabled them to make an accurate study of exotic men and women in person, to measure and photograph them, without having to make long voyages. At the time, anthropology was still a young science. Researchers endeavored to draw up a systematic classification of all races and people on earth, from the most primitive up to and including the most highly civilized. Of major importance in this context were the color of their skin, their build and the shape of their skull, but their manner of living and the objects they used were also studied. People who lived in tree huts were seen as belonging to a low rung in the civilization ladder and deemed close to apes. Those who hunted with bow and arrow instead of with firearms were classified as primitive. For researchers, their own white race and the West European civilization served as standard for all the other cultures.
The Ethnographic Museum collected the material for this research. Not only did it collect the objects these foreign peoples used in daily life, but it also had all kinds of photographs taken. The purpose of these photographs was to allow physical characteristics to be measured. These anthropometric photographs feature a naked or half-naked man or woman sitting next to a yardstick in front of a painted decor or a white background. He or she stares into the camera and tries to move as little as possible, because otherwise the photograph would be blurry. The museum also bought photographs made by professionals, who sometimes deviated from reality by stage-managing the photographs. However, people were so much in awe of the new technique that nobody dared doubt the truth of the pictures.
After 1900, scientific interest for photography began to wane. Classifying peoples and civilizations according to a hierarchic system proved impossible and ethnology took a new course. Anthropologists went out to do their own fieldwork. They studied other characteristics of exotic people and deemed family ties, power relations, stories and rituals to be of more importance, but these were not so easy to photograph.
The photographs are rediscovered
As mentioned earlier, the interest for the photographs had diminished after the turn of the century. For decades, almost nobody at the museum bothered about them. Fortunately, they were rediscovered. The photographs the museum had collected then became available to those who wished to publish them. Non-specialist authors and their publishers were happy to avail themselves of the opportunity. Books and magazines with many photographs of exotic people appeared. Especially photographs of naked or half-naked individuals were in high demand. ‘Ordinary’ nude photographs were forbidden at the time and only sold under the counter, but apparently this did not apply to photographs of people from other continents.
A changing appreciation for the photographs
Together, these various photographs purport quite a different meaning than what photographers and researchers realized at the time. They show us how Westerners looked at other cultures in the past. Proceeding from a personal involvement with their culture, some photographers took pictures of people up close and in their own environment, whereas others kept a scientific distance and took the pictures according to the rules of anthropometry; still others directed their camera mainly at the natives’ neighborhood and the landscape.
The photographs’ significance for Western civilization
In Europe, some semi-scientific books featuring a large number of photographs sold millions of copies until well into the 1950s. Although science had already long lost interest in these photographs, they nevertheless played a decisive role in determining the image of other people and cultures in the eyes of the public at large. The ideas they conveyed at the time became deeply entrenched in Western civilization and makes it worth while to look at them again, from a modern point of view.